Ten Years of Child Labour Prevention and Remediation – Reflections by The Centre for Child Rights and Business

By Ines Kaempfer, CEO, The Centre for Child Rights and Business

For over ten years, The Centre for Child Rights and Business (The Centre) has been deeply engaged in child rights and business issues, working directly in the global supply chains of international companies to improve working conditions and the wellbeing of parent workers, young workers, and children. Over the years, The Centre’s work has expanded to encompass a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, mining, and artisanal home-based production.

One of The Centre’s ongoing core service areas has been the prevention and remediation of child labour. This is, in some ways, not something we’ve foreseen. Ten years ago, many of us working in this industry were positive that for most companies child labour was a thing of the past. Even though the social compliance efforts that many companies had worked on since the 1990s had not manifested into systematic changes on issues such as worker participation and freedom of association, many thought that these efforts had at least achieved a reduction in child labour cases among their suppliers.

This optimism was founded in a continued drop in child labour cases: companies were reporting very few cases of child labour in their public CSR reports, while authoritative voices on child labour – estimates like the ILO and Maplecroft Child Labour Index – were also pointing towards a continuous decrease in child labour numbers in their annual reports.

The Centre’s experience has shown that this optimism was premature. What looked like success was at least in parts just a shifting of the problem – that is, avoiding child labour in key first-tier suppliers and often pushing it to lower tiers, subcontractors, and more informal areas of the supply chain. We realised that most companies were quite content with a "we do not accept child labour" approach but had no systems in place to understand child labour risks throughout their supply chains, did not know how to tackle the challenge more systematically, and only rarely had actual processes in place to remediate child labour should it be found.

The systematic gaps became even more evident when some companies started to move from mainly compliance-driven approaches to more systematic human rights impact assessments and invested more in understanding their supply chain beyond Tier 1. Every child rights risk assessment conducted by The Centre with the aim of looking at the supply chain vertically (raw material to product) has identified child labour or a very high risk thereof, indicating that child labour remains a risk and challenge for most companies with international supply chains.

While a significant number of companies are still holding on to the “we do not accept child labour” mantra, many have taken the learnings and embarked on journeys to look at the issue more systematically, making budgets available to both better understand the risk and carry the costs needed to ensure a child-centric child labour remediation programme.

Two girls formerly engaged in child labour in Myanmar learn new sewing skills and catch up on the gap in their education at a vocational training centre thanks to a brand-sponsored remediation programme implemented by The Centre. © The Centre for Child Rights and Business.
Two girls formerly engaged in child labour in Myanmar learn new sewing skills and catch up on the gap in their education at a vocational training centre thanks to a brand-sponsored remediation programme implemented by The Centre. © The Centre for Child Rights and Business.

Since setting up a more systematic child labour remediation service, The Centre has dealt with over 600 cases of child labour that have supported out-of-school children to return to education. We have also worked with over 60 companies to either set up or improve their child labour prevention and remediation policies – moving from a zero-tolerance approach to one that seeks to understand the risks and instances of child labour and tackle it proactively. While there is no easy, one-size-fits-all formula for tackling child labour, we have seen how companies make this shift by closely examining the risks and gaps in their supply chain through human and child rights risk assessments, strengthening their child labour remediation policies and ensuring that all staff visiting supply chains know how to act and what immediate steps to take should child labour or risks thereof be found. This shift also goes hand in hand with a change in attitude where finding child labour is no longer considered a sign of “failure” but a sign of functioning monitoring and due diligence processes.

This shift in approach is also driven and encouraged by a large push to enact Human Rights Due Diligence Legislation, which can be observed in key consumer markets. While much of the regulation is still rather timid (such as the German “Supply Chain Due Diligence Act” a.k.a. “The Duty of Care Act”, the Swiss “Ordinance on Due Diligence Obligations and Transparency Regarding Minerals and Metals from Conflict Areas and Child Labour”, or the Dutch “Child Labour Due Diligence Act and Further Developments”), others have or are expected to have more teeth (such as the US import restrictions and penalties on goods made with forced labour that are already in effect, or the European Commission’s Proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence). Many companies we work with have shown a clear intention to be ready for these laws.

These are positive and encouraging developments, but they do not mean we have it figured out. Child labour is intrinsically linked to deep-rooted issues in many countries: poverty, migration, lack of access to education, etc. And while it is of course true that the private sector will not be able to solve child labour on its own and that collaboration amongst many actors, in particular with governments, is needed, companies with international supply chains can still do a lot more.

Issues such as child labour are closely linked to the often insufficient and exploitative income and wages that supply chain workers receive and they are also linked to large, fluctuating supply chains that allow little visibility into production processes.

If we really want to tackle child labour and other key human rights risks in companies’ supply chains, we need to start thinking about the sourcing and production risks at each step of the way, starting from product design and choice to pricing. In a recent discussion with around 30 companies, we identified a number of key measures that need to be taken if we want to tackle child labour in a sustainable and effective way. These include transparently and proactively acknowledging child labour within supply chains and making more considerate product and sourcing decisions that factor in the cost of a fair living wage and decent working conditions for those involved in the production process. The key needed measures also include increasing visibility and traceability, getting buy-in and commitment to allocating enough funding and resources from top leadership within companies to build robust prevention and remediation mechanisms, shifting resources to support lower tiers, and directly engaging with communities.

However, as we also learned in the same discussion, many companies are still a long way from putting these ideas into practice, and the ongoing supply chain challenges triggered by the pandemic, war, and climate change-related disasters will make many of the tasks even harder. It is therefore all the more important that we are aware of this formidable challenge ahead of us and understand that very decisive action and tough decisions will be needed if we want to be serious about tackling child labour in our supply chain.

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